Efforts have been underway for decades to create a public park in order to protect one of the most beautiful and historically significant areas within the city of Rome. The newly born Parco della Caffarella includes unbroken stretches of the evocative Roman campagna, already familiar to many foreigners via the canvases of Claude Lorrain. Virginia Woolf, visiting this part of Rome in 1927, had this to say, but naturally she put it in writing: "I only wish to be allowed to stay here - for ever and ever - never see a soul". (And here in parts of the Caffarella, you can still hope to accomplish this a bit.) She continues, "We rambled over the Campagna on Sunday. I suppose France is all right, and England is all right, but I have never seen anything as beautiful as this is. Figure us sitting in hot sunshine on the doorstep of a Roman ruin in a field with hawk-colored archways against a clear grape-colored sky, silvery mountains in the background."
The 210 hectares (some 520 acres) under consideration extend out from the Aurelian Walls between the ancient Via Latina and the slightly more recent and more famous Via Appia Antica. On the southern edge, along the Appian Way, it includes the Tomb of Cecilia Metella and the Maxentian Complex with its well-preserved circus. Parts of the catacombs extend underground, although the entrances are found some hundreds of meters closer to the center of Rome.On the north, the "park" is bounded by the dense urban neighborhoods that grew up after a second line of Rome's subway (Metropolitan, Line A) was constructed beginning in the 70's. This portion of the Caffarella is home to some well-preserved Roman temples and sepulchres as well as a 16th century manor house, that was the center of a large agricultural estate. It is, in fact, from the name of its 16th century owners, the Caffarelli's, that the Valley of the Caffarella takes its current name.
Given its size, the Caffarella cannot be taken in all at once. It has so many aspects. On my first visit to the Appian Way, departing from Rome's center by bicycle, I couldn't help marvelling that at certain points what I was seeing must be very little changed from what Saints Peter and Paul or Caton the Elder might have viewed as they went to and from Rome on foot. Across the valley, one can have the same strange sensation as when finding oneself in the midst of rocks and forests in New York's Central Park, you look up to glimpse the wall of high-rises along Fifth Avenue.Walking towards the neighborhoods on the northern edge of the Caffarella, there is an intriguing patchwork of gardens, fenced off by vines or reed fences.
Incredibly, in the '90, certain individuals took advantage of the unclear situation to illegally appropriate enviable garden plots. But imagine, that after all the centuries and waves of haphazard urban sprawling, most of this prized valley (90%) remains a sheeppasture, albeit it a rather distinguished one.
Now half of the estate is property of the town of Roma. Is the glass half full or half empty? Clearly, from the point of view of a group of civic-minded neighbors who banded together to form the Committee for the Park of the Caffarella in 1984, it is the latter.
On paper at least, the whole Caffarella has been a public park since 1962. However, this did not mean that much of any action was taken to realize the project. It has been a long and discouraging story for the members of the committee. Since 1967, when the city accepted the concept of a park including the Caffarella, there have been shifts in zoning plans as well as strategies for the expropriation of the land. At one point in the 70's, just as the expropriation was about to proceed, the major land owner successfully challenged the regional government in the administrative court. Legal rangling about the law and the correct price for the land took up much of the 80's. The owner had the bright idea at one point to offer as a gift to the city the central , marshy part of the Caffarella in exchange for development rights to the land on both slopes of the valley, that which encompasses most of the important monuments. Fortunately, this "cunning" plan did not slip by the officials or citizens on guard at the time. In the mid 90's, then, on the eve of the Jubilee of 2000, the committe finds itself fighting the same old battle, but perhaps this time in a slightly more advantageous position. Funds have been appropriated in recent years for the expropriation, the plan for implementation is in place. The politicians, as ever, are all in favor of the realization of the park. This time, with the impetus of the Jubilee -and Rome coming under the international visitor spotlight- there has been enough momentum to move forward, and on april 2000 the park became a reality.
In 1996, with the prospect of the park becoming a reality, an interesting group has been spun-off from the Committee. Called HUMUS, it is a cultural association which develop educational and cultural activites for Roman citizens as well as a limited kind of tourism in the Caffarella. Beginning with guided tours of the area, that is nature walks and visits to the most important monuments, and the rental of bicycles on Sundays, HUMUS plans eventually to organize small cafes or stands to provide refreshment - all such activities considered from the point of view of balancing the values of bringing people into to park to see, learn and enjoy versus the requirements to protect and restore both the monuments and the natural environment. Proceeds from these activities, which amount to contributions from "members" supporting the cultural association for various periods of time through participation in the activities, will be turned back to fund the developments needed to implement the plan for the park: uncovering certain ruins overgrown by brush and weeds, maintenance of trails and bikeways, security measures to protect monuments, etc. From bitter experience, however, the Committee and HUMUS are hardly counting on the various governments agencies involved to carry through on all plans, but there seems to be a breath of hope that the park may become entirely enjoyable, with luck or "magari" as they say in Rome, before they are all dead.
If in the future, we can fantasize ourselves picking up a bicycle at one point, biking over to visit a Roman structure whose acquaintance we've not yet made, seeking out the right spot for a snack or visit in the countryside to savor what so appealed to Virginia Woolf, then dropping off the bicycle at the point which is most convenient for reentry into everyday life.... for the present there are already practical ways to visit the Caffarella.
I like to let certain historical figures be a guide. Certainly one of the more interesting personalities to put a stamp on this area was Tiberius Claudius Herodes Atticus. Descended from a very wealthy and noble Greek family, he was born around 100 AD and lived much of his life in Rome, becoming a philosoper, tutor to emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, and eventually governor of Roman territories in Greece and Asia Minor. He built monuments in all these parts, but in Rome it was his good fortune to marry Annia Regilla, daughter of a wealthy and noble, who brought as part of her dowry the estate that extended from the 3rd to the 4th milepost along the Via Appia Antica, that is one of the most beautiful parts of the Caffarella. The Villa of Herodes Atticus was built on virtually the same site that Maxentius would later use for his imperial suburban villa.
However, when Annia Regilla died in 160 AD, her brother accused Herodes Atticus of murdering her. He was acquitted by the court (midst rumors that he bought the acquittal), and went to great lengths to mourn conspicuosly. Some of the fruits of this spectacle are happily preserved to visit. The estate was turned into a Triopius, a sort of holy area reminiscent of shrines to Demeter in Asia Minor. Here he constructed a temple, which survives today as the church of Sant'Urbano, but is in fact an almost perfectly preserved Roman structure demonstrating the wonderfully refined brickwork which had been developed to its highest point in the second century after Christ.
The presumed tomb of Annia Regilla, which lies further into the park, along the Via dell'Almone, is often referred to as the temple of the god Rediculus. This invites us to explore the story of the ancient Roman religious practices as we hike through the park in search of yet other remains from the extravagance of Herodes Atticus. But there were many more actors, and the Caffarella awaits your visit to discover its history.